It’s almost Halloween, which is appropriate since I have no way of describing Take Shelter except as a very unusual sort of horror movie. It’s not heavily invested in jumping out and yelling “boo” at the audience, though there are some shocking jolts. Instead it’s horrifying in the way it plants its own form of creeping dread under your skin, leaving you wide awake, staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep.
But maybe insomnia can be a blessing; it certainly would be for Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), who is tormented by a recurring nightmare. It starts with a storm — big and powerful, and dropping a queer sort of thick, brownish rain that feels more like machine oil. After the rain comes an attack — from his dog, from his best friend — that leaves him shaken even after he awakes. When Curtis starts hearing distant thunder from a clear sky, he knows what it could mean; his mother was hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia around the same age as he is now.
Curtis’ mother left him when he was ten, and he swore he’d never leave his family like that. He has to hide it from his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and his little girl, Hannah (Tova Stewart). But he finds himself strangely compelled to build out the old storm shelter in the backyard of their Southern Ohio home. Not only would that draw attention, they can hardly afford it as they prepare for Hannah to receive a cochlear implant. And still, Curtis feels the storm coming to blow everything away.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols has done a superlative job in bringing this powerful story to the screen, and doing it so evocatively. Early on in the film the landscape — that area of the Midwest where the last Appalachian foothills die out and the Great Plains pick up — is almost a character in its own right. And the skies are stunning as the storms roll in with dark and ominous anvil-shaped thunderheads. And as we watch Curtis turn further and further inwards Nichols gives us tighter and tighter shots, adding to the sense of claustrophobia. He slowly builds up the audience’s own paranoia as Curtis brings his own to fuller and fuller expression.
Chastain is, once again, excellent. It gets steadily harder and harder to believe how suddenly she has appeared on the scene and how instantly accomplished she seems to be. Here she returns to a Midwest housewife similar to her mid-century Texas housewife from The Tree of Life, and she nails the loving wife trying to come to grips with a truly bewildering situation.
On the other hand it’s surprising how long Shannon has labored in the anonymity of character acting until his breakthrough in Boardwalk Empire last year. Curtis is dead-center in Shannon’s wheelhouse as a man whose stoic outer shell hides a slightly off-kilter inner life, and he shines here. We can see his fear mount as he realizes what’s about to happen, but feels powerless to stop it. No matter how much Curtis knows it’s all a dream, it doesn’t seem to help.
And that’s what makes a horror movie that sticks with you: the lead is slowly stalked by a monster he knows, and yet cannot escape. What’s worse, the monster lives inside his own head. And finally, this monster is all too real; any one of us could one day find ourselves watching the clear, blue skies.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.